Obama personnel policies draw generally high marks

In the catch-all category of "HR Change," President Obama and his OPM director earned an A-minus.
In the catch-all category of "HR Change," President Obama and his OPM director earned an A-minus. (Charles Dharapak/associated Press)
By Joe Davidson
Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's about that time when performance evaluations of Barack Obama's first year as boss-in-chief begin coming in.

It helps when the evaluators are a nonpartisan group of experts who know something about the area on which they judge the president. Fortunately, that's the case with several articles on Obama's management agenda -- written by a team of analysts, including industry and former government executives -- that appear in the winter 2010 issue of the Public Manager, which will be available Friday at http://www.thepublicmanager.org. This quarterly journal is published by the Bureaucrat Inc., which describes itself as "a not-for-profit organization chartered and devoted to furthering knowledge and best practice at all levels of government."

The authors don't have a dog -- or a donkey or an elephant -- in the fight over Obama's reputation. They're Democrats and Republicans who push a good-government agenda.

The crew was first assembled in 2007 by the Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group to develop suggestions designed to help the next president deliver the goods to the American people by improving the government's efficiency and effectiveness.

The Cisco operation, by the way, says it is a "think tank and incubator of transformational strategies" -- whatever that means -- that does not sell or recommend Cisco products.

One article of particular interest to Federal Diary readers examines the Office of Personnel Management's performance under Obama and OPM Director John Berry. The article, "Change is in the wind for HR Management," was written by Stephen Benowitz, a former career civil servant who last served as an associate OPM director during President George W. Bush's administration.

Benowitz reports that Obama "has reversed a number of personnel policies that were adopted by the previous administration." Though Benowitz was right there when those now-discarded policies were being implemented, he holds no brief for the way things used to be.

"I would say it's doing a much better job than the last eight years" under Bush, he said of the Obama administration during a telephone interview. He gives the administration no grade lower than B-minus in six areas of federal employee relations.

In the catch-all category of "HR Change," Benowitz says Obama and Berry earned an A-minus. "Berry has been an effective spokesman for change in federal personnel policy, but has not had time to advance many of his proposals," Benowitz wrote. So, apparently, this grade is for advocacy more than accomplishment.

That's not to diminish advocacy, and everyone knows Washington can take lots of time to accomplish anything. In the area of advocacy, Alan P. Balutis, chairman of the Public Manager's board and director of Cisco's business group, credited Berry in an interview with making real progress on his agenda and developing a strong alliance with the potent Office of Management and Budget "to use their authorities to bring about change."

On employee-management relations, Benowitz says the administration deserves a B-plus. Berry deals well with unions, according to Benowitz, "but has yet to convince many agency leaders" to consider such things as greater workplace flexibilities.

Berry doesn't rate quite so high on performance accountability, earning a B-minus, "but with a bullet, as they say in the music business," Benowitz wrote. "OPM has not yet succeeded in convincing employees the value of performance accountability, essentially because the level of trust between employees and managers is still low."

Agency executive leadership, such things as building a good pipeline of potential managers and providing them with training, gets a B-plus. Benowitz cites Berry's establishment of a single office to handle issues involving the Senior Executive Service, "activities previously split among three SES divisions."

In Benowitz's view, Berry has done a fine job of providing leadership in the talent management department and gets an A-minus for his efforts. Yet the areas of talent management Benowitz mentions, such as simplifying the hiring process, remain in the planning stages. Benowitz also says agencies "are not doing so well" in delivering changes, such as cutting job-application paperwork, that OPM wants.

This grade must reflect anticipation, kind of like Obama's Nobel Peace Prize.

Berry has made more concrete moves in the area of work life for federal employees, but Benowitz oddly gives no grade in this category, saying it's "too early to tell."

He saves the best for last, giving Berry an A-plus in leadership. "Berry projects a strong role, setting expectations for all agencies and their leaders," Benowitz wrote. At the same time, he acknowledges that many of the changes Berry has promoted "will take time to implement and are likely subject to possible changes by others in the administration, members of Congress and additional stakeholders."

So, the grade for Berry's accomplishment is TBD.

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